We Americans can learn something about democracy from the people of Nigeria, where I recently joined a few hundred international observers to witness that nation’s presidential election. It was an extraordinarily moving experience to watch democracy being born, and a reminder of what we enjoy as Americans but increasingly take for granted.

Unlike Nigeria’s election in 2007, which was so violent and corrupt that observers called it “the worst they had ever seen anywhere in the world,” observers reported that this year’s presidential election was fair, transparent and mostly peaceful. For the Nigerians I talked to on election day, this was important for the world to know.

Just days before, nine people died when a bomb went off at an election office just outside Nigeria’s capital city of Abuja. Most of the dead were young workers who were preparing election materials. Earlier, a candidate and several others were shot to death in the north. Despite another bombing on the morning of the election and the very real potential for more violence, millions of Nigerians turned out to vote. “They’re trying to scare us away,” one voter said to me, “but they won’t stop us.”

When I first visited Nigeria two years ago, a member of the National Assembly told me, “You won’t really know Nigeria until you go out to where the mud houses are.”

As an election observer, I did. One of the polling places we visited was located in a small mud-house village just outside the southeastern port city of Calabar in the Niger Delta. Poll workers there sat at a rickety wooden table under a large tree as villagers lined up in the sweltering heat, waiting patiently for their turn to vote. For them, it was a solemn moment that would take most of the day. They didn’t have electricity or running water, but they had the right to vote, and they clearly were determined to exercise it. Nigeria was once a British colony, and was then governed by its own military until 1999, so democracy is still fresh and important to them.

Here at home, democracy isn’t something most Americans today have had to fight or die for, or even break much of a sweat. Most of us have had the good fortune of being born into it. And this can be troublesome, because it cheapens what we increasingly take for granted. In a nation where less than one percent of our citizens serve in the military and nearly half pay no federal income taxes, we’re becoming less and less invested. How many of us really value something we get for nothing?

The stakes in America’s 2008 presidential election were extremely high, offering two radically different visions for the nation’s future. Even so, just 63 percent of eligible Americans cast ballots. Far fewer take the time to vote in most other elections. A common excuse for not registering to vote is that people want to avoid another civic responsibility, jury duty. For a growing number of Americans, especially among the young, democracy is too much of a bother.

As I watched those Nigerian voters stand for hours in the hot sun for the right to put their thumb print next to the candidate of their choice, I wondered how many Americans would do the same, especially knowing that death and violence were real possibilities. For the Nigerians, it’s a price they’re willing to pay.